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23.08.2008

A Growing black hole in Turkish cyberspace

While the number of blocked web sites reaches reached to 853, including popular Youtube, several web sites and blogs block themselves as an act of protest to draw attention to the increasing censorship over the Internet

MÜGE YALÇIN


It all started with the blocking of YouTube, for the third time in May, for insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic. This was the last straw that sparked a nationwide protest campaign spreading throughout Turkey's cyberworld, where the number of blocked Web sites has now reached 853.

In a counterprotest, several Turkish blogs and Web sites have begun blocking themselves. This self-imposed ban started when blogger Fırat Yıldız put the message, "Access to this Web site is prevented by its owner's free will," on his blog, elma+alt+shift. Ironically, Yıldız was copying the censor's message, "The access to this Web site is prevented by court order," that is placed on Web sites blocked by authorities.

Next, another Turkish blogger, Selim Yörük, created the Web site www.sansüresansür.org (censor to censor) with a linked code that allows any blogger to add the same message to his homepage.

Many others followed Yıldız and by Wednesday, the last day of the campaign, more than 400 Web sites and blogs had temporarily shut themselves down.

"Blockings are arbitrary. Moreover, these became routine acts. Our campaign was an experiment to demonstrate how the Internet would look if censorship continues unabated, and we did that. We wanted to shock people," Selim Yörük told the Turkish Daily News.

"We wanted to attract attention to the fact that our freedom is taken away, day by day. Today, they shut down the Internet and, tomorrow, it will come to newspapers and magazines," he said. "Such blockings should cease to be routine practice. People get used to them. If one Web site is blocked, they turn to another. They are not conscious about censorship. This is really dangerous," he said.

"Authorities do not know how to deal with the Internet, therefore they shut Web sites down as they see fit," said Orhan Bilgin, founder of the Web-dictionary, Zargan, which also participated in the campaign, adding that the recent regulations on the Internet were far from transparent. "Web sites are shut down without proper justification. It's totally arbitrary."

It does not take much of an offense to get a Web site banned in Turkey. Courts can close Web sites for eight different crimes, which include child pornography, insulting Atatürk, and encouraging suicide, according to Article 5651 of the Penal Code. The point that draws reaction is the fact that almost any complaint to a lower court can result in a Web site being blocked.

YouTube has become a symbol of the censorship issue in Turkey as access to the site is frequently blocked due to its hosting videos insulting Atatürk. Although access to those videos is forbidden in Turkey, it is possible to view them by changing proxy settings. The prosecutor's office also demands the videos be removed from the site. For this, YouTube would have to open a representative office in Turkey, obtain necessary permits and pay taxes. YouTube has refused to open such an office, arguing that it is not a Turkish firm and it is not necessary for it to be subject to Turkish law.

The Internet Department, working within the scope of the Telecommunications Authority of Turkey, continues to block Web sites both due to individual's complaints as well as following its own inspections. More than 20,000 individual complaints have been made to the Internet Department. Proceedings have begun for half of these complaints, officials said.

"Of course there will be limitations. Do you think that everything is free in other countries?" said Dicle Eroğul, general secretary of Turkish Informatics Foundation, or TAB. "However these need to be done by taking into account the opinion of wider sections of the society," she said, adding that they supported the self-censorship protest.

"Although it was a rather late reaction, I believe it is an appropriate protest," Eroğul said, stressing that she believed the problem was rooted in legal regulations, especially Article 5651. "The Internet law in Turkey is too complex and creates a confusion of concepts. Moreover, its philosophy is based upon bans. Blocking is one thing, controlling is another," she said.

Zargan's Bilgin signaled that Web site owners and bloggers would not stop at protesting.

"We are thinking of creating a forum, where Web site users would discuss the Internet situation in Turkey. As 'Zargan,' we have over one million users. Then, we will publish a booklet of these discussions and send it to the authorities," he said. Blogger Yörük said they would continue their activities via short films and posters reflecting on censorship to create increased awareness of this issue.